“Queerness of any kind puts you in this other space that is harder to define and understand”

BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGE BY ERICA HERNANDEZ

New Jersey singer-songwriter Donna Missal has risen through the ranks pretty quickly over the past few years all thanks to her emotionally strong tunes about love and desire. Her coolly seductive, yet openly emotional voice proves to be the most effective vehicle for her songs, leading to collaborations with the likes of Rudimental and Macklemore. 

In 2015, eager to kick-start her career, Missal recorded a seductive number called Keep Lying, a track she wrote for independent film How To Be a Man. While the track was created to persuade other performers to cut the tune, her powerful vocals caught the ears of music fans and the recording went viral. It picked up over 1.5 million plays on streaming services, giving Donna a worldwide platform to use her fiercely emotional voice to express unapologetic songs about self-discovery, value and freedom. 

We caught up with the sultry songstress, while she was on tour with the one and only Lewis Capaldi, to find out what we can expect from album number two. 

DIVA: Your debut album This Time came out back in 2018, how have things been since then? 

DONNA MISSAL: It feels like it was in a different lifetime, but things have been good. I try to focus on what’s ahead of me. It helps with focus and keeping my intentions on what’s next. You have to take one step at a time. I’ve just been putting out a couple of songs and finishing my record when I’ve been at home in Los Angeles. I’m excited to finish that up and see that vision realised. Then I’ll just be getting ready to put that out there and keep it moving. 

What has changed in the last two years in terms of your music? 

The learning process is constant. I don’t think that’ll ever change. I’m learning new things about the way I express myself and that changes due to your environment and the culture that’s happening around you. That’s what it is to be an artist, finding a way to express your perspective. It takes on many iterations and it evolves as I evolve. I’ve been listening to a lot of classic rock and female fronted rock. The icons I grew up really adoring have come back into my life and I’ve been so influenced by that. I’ve been listening to Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain and feeling so empowered by women singing rock music. The new album is influenced so heavily by that. It’s taken on quite a new form, but I’m naturally expressing myself at this point in time. 

Image by Erica Hernandez

Who are your biggest music inspirations? 

I’m influenced by all kinds of music and I tend to express my own identity through things that are constantly pulsing in my mind. 

Sharon Van Etten wrote a bunch of songs on my last record with me and Jupiter was the first song that we worked on together. She sent me a demo and said “I had you in mind when I was writing this melody. What do you think?” I just thought the free-form melodies and lyrics were amazing and I took it into the studio a few months later and made it this pop-dance song. It’s amazing to be able to hear her version, you can see how something can exist in two parallel ways that both give the song its own brand new meaning. I was so blown away by the experience of getting to work with someone who’s been so influential and so inspirational for me. As a woman making music, she’s one of my all time favourites. 

Do you have any other dream collaborations? 

I think Rosalia is one of the most exciting women in music right now. The gate has been blown wide open for women to be seen as powerful icons, not just women in music, which can be so reductive. I love the idea of doing collaborations with women. 

How does your songwriting process work? 

It differs from song to song, because inspiration tends to find you when it wants to find you. You have to be willing to follow it when it’s there. Sometimes I write a lyric down in my notebook while I’m in transit or in the shower. I’ll have an idea or there’s something on my mind as I’m walking about, or, as I’m drinking my coffee in the morning. Sometimes the song starts with the lyrics, sometimes a melody comes from an instrument that someone picked up in the moment. It tends to come together in lots of different ways. I made this last record with a couple of collaborators that made it come together fairly quickly. 

Was there a specific person or situation that inspired the new music? 

It’s a record about experiencing a huge personal loss. I was going through a break-up that was difficult and messy and forced me to reevaluate where I was at emotionally. I got myself into therapy and have been working through it and trying to re-centre my purpose. What was consistent to me had exploded and blown up in my face. For a while that felt really scary and I felt really alone. Through the process of working through those feelings, I found myself coming to the other side of that. Now I look around and instead of seeing destruction, I see possibility. I set out writing it knowing I had to be the most vulnerable and the most open that I could be. 

Image by Erica Hernandez

How were you first introduced to music and creating? 

It’s been a very normal thing that I’ve been exposed to from a really young age. I was born in New York and lived there for a couple years while my parents were running a studio. My dad was a songwriter and a session drummer in the 80s and they ran it together and lived there. His mother was a songwriter in the 40s. It’s generational for me. I think I was four when I started recording on his equipment. I’ve just been doing it forever. It’s just not felt like something I had to go find, it was one of my very first memories as a kid.

You had to defend your queerness online in the past. Did you ever hide your sexuality at all? 

If you have any platform whatsoever, no matter how small, you have to use it and be a part of social change that is moving in the direction of equality and acceptance of others. There was no reason not to address it, because I have nothing to hide, nothing to be embarrassed about. Queerness of any kind puts you in this other space that is harder to define and understand. 

I think people are obsessed with definition and labelling things for the sake of being able to understand them. Sometimes it’s just not that simple. When it comes to bisexuality, I think there’s this huge misunderstanding of what that means. Even from within the gay community there’s this misunderstanding that you are trying to differentiate yourself or have some alternative motive that’s not genuine.

Anyone who is struggling with feeling like they’re not accepted or that they can’t be true to who they are in a public space, I want to represent them and show them they don’t have to be afraid of that. 

What makes you feel visible as a bisexual woman? 

I think it’s my privilege. Where I’m from, who my friends are, who my family is, I’m very fortunate. I’m accepted by my community, but it’s not that way for so many people. I think my visibility is a product of my environment.  I hope the same for everyone else. Visibility is so crucial to taking these steps forward and will lead to the betterment of not just queer people, but society as a whole.

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